China’s muscling in with missile boats. The Philippines is sending over aircraft. Now another play has laid a stake in the South China Sea.
China’s muscling in with missile boats. The Philippines is sending over aircraft. But another player is deploying its military to stake a claim on the South China Sea – Vietnam.
As Beijing’s fishing “militia” moved in on the Spratly Islands and Manila sent reconnaissance aircraft to observe, Hanoi had one of its warships conduct “combat drills” nearby.
The modern anti-submarine frigate Quang Trung and its on-board helicopter exercised its capabilities in plain view of heavily militarised Chinese installations.
Vietnam also claims historical ownership of the strategic fishing grounds.
The “activities of Chinese ships … seriously violate Vietnam’s sovereignty,” declares Hanoi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of its coast guard cutters is moored at Whitsun Reef, monitoring the swarm of up to 220 Chinese “militia” active there.
“On the Spratly Islands, combat preparations are at the highest levels,” Vietnam’s national broadcaster Vietnam Television reported this week.
Meanwhile, China has deployed several Type 022 fast-attack catamarans to the region. One of these missile-armed naval vessels on Thursday forced a Philippines charter boat carrying media away from the contested area.
This represents yet another escalation in the militarisation of the Spratly Islands.
The use of a naval vessel, as opposed to a Coast Guard cutter, represents military force. Not civilian “policing”.
It’s a volatile scenario.
“Beijing’s pretence about just using “white hulls” (Coast Guard vessels) to promote South China Sea peace and stability is well over,” says Nanyang University in Singapore maritime security analyst Collin Koh.
“What’s evident is that the PLA Navy is now engaging in active patrols alongside the (Coast Guard) and maritime militia in those so-called ‘waters under national jurisdiction’ which include ‘other relevant waters’. That should be interpreted to mean waters enclosed by (Beijing’s) nine-dash line.”
Vietnam and China fought a brief war in 1979. Hanoi repulsed an invasion of Vietnam’s north. But China managed to take control of much of the Paracel Islands positioned between the two nations.
Vessels from the two sides have regularly clashed throughout the South China Sea since then.
Manila also has experience of Beijing’s “creeping expansion”.
China assembled structures on Mischief Reef in 1994. Four years later, it began turning the reef into an artificial reef fortress, complete with airfield, harbour and weapons systems.
“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea),” Philippine national Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stated this week.
The swarm of Beijing’s “militia” had dispersed to other reefs and features in the Spratleys. But about 44 remain anchored in the shelter of Whitsun Reef.
But the arrival of Chinese naval vessels in the region has prompted the US to issue a stark warning.
“An armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told a press conference Thursday.
“We share the concerns of our Philippine allies regarding the continued reported massing of PRC maritime militia near the Whitsun Reef”.
But Koh says the use of a warship in enforcing Beijing’s claim over the Spratly Islands represents a planned step-change in its assertion.
“The tiered response involving PLA Navy in (People’s Republic of China’s) maritime sovereignty and rights protection patrols in the (South China Sea), coupled with the Coast Guard Law, carries serious ramifications for the concerned SE Asian parties,” he says.
Hanoi has begun upgrading its outposts in the Spratly Islands, making them “more resilient to invasion or blockade and strengthening deterrence”.
Most of Vietnam’s Spratly facilities already have air defence revetments and artillery bunkers. But recent satellite photographs reveal all 10 of the islets it controls display new defensive works.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) has observed “drastic” changes to facilities at West Reef and Sin Cowe Island. Like China’s nearby fortresses, West Reef is an artificial island.
“In the past two years, West Reef has seen significant new construction, including several coastal defence installations, administrative buildings, concrete pads and bunkers, and a large tower structure presumably for communications or signals intelligence,” the AMTI report notes.
It also observed “the construction of an array of defensive installations along the coastline” on Sin Cowe Island.
The Communist Party-controlled South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) has published a report attacking Vietnam’s “military deployment” to the Spratleys.
“As the Vietnamese troops and civilians have become increasingly active in the Vietnamese-held islands and reefs as well as the surrounding waters, the risk of any friction and conflict couldn’t be belittled,” it states.
It’s a further indication of ongoing intimidation from Beijing.
“This latest PLA Navy harassment of the … chartered motorboat is not likely going to be a one-off, isolated incident. As part of the joint patrol framework involving Coast Guard and other forces such as maritime militia across Paracel and Spratly Islands, we can expect repeats,” Koh warns.